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"Upstairs" at Chez Panisse

"Upstairs" at Chez Panisse

The upstairs cafe at chez panisse is a lot more casual (photo by Creative Commons user xmatt)

Cynthia Houng | Chef's Blade

Last night, I ate at the Chez Panisse Café (or “upstairs,” as some like to call it) for the first time. For the better part of a decade, I’ve passed by the restaurant’s front doors without entering. I’ve studied the menus, bought the cookbooks, and even patronized restaurants operated by CP alumni but, until last night, I’d never actually eaten at the restaurant.

To access the restaurant, one must first climb a narrow flight of stairs. The dining room itself is long and narrow, almost a galley, broken roughly in halves by a semi-circular bar. The decor itself is very Arts & Crafts―all warm browns and soft creams. On this particular night, the powder-pink peonies dominated the floral arrangements.

Before going, I agonized over what to wear. Though the staff sports crisp formal wear, the diners are a motley mix of high and low. But I was probably the only diner wearing a bright red dress. Red is not really a Berkeley color.

There were 8 of us, so we sat a single long table, broken in the center by two low copper lanterns. The dinner was a celebration, a welcome for some old friends from France.

We started the evening with a bottle of Domaine Tempier rosé (a Kermit Lynch favorite). Our guests had a friend in the kitchen, and besides the wine, he sent out another little treat: a small pizza topped with roasted squid.

Feeling lazy, I went with the fixed menu: a garden lettuce salad, dressed with a very mild vinaigrette (more olive oil than vinegar, with little gritty bits of sea salt and black pepper), a clam and sweet corn chowder with leeks and a fragile triangle of flatbread, and a pluot sherbet with moscato d’asti and sliced nectarines. The pluot sherbet was the piéce de resistánce. Light, ephemeral, the sherbet delivered tiny, concentrated bites of pluot essence. Dessert was pure summer, delivered on a spoon, the perfect coda to the meal.

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Chez Panisse Cafe is known for it's delicious pizza. (photo by Creative Commons user xmatt)

Alice Waters describes menu planning as something akin to the playwright’s art. According to Waters, a well-planned menu should follow a clearly defined narrative arc. Last night’s menu took us from late spring (the garden lettuces) to full summer (the sweet corn), closing with the velvet-dark of a summer night.

I hadn’t expected to like Chez Panisse. I wanted to be an iconoclast. I wanted to hate this restaurant, or at least play the snob and declare myself “underwhelmed.” And there were things that could improve. But overall, it was a lovely, understated evening. The food was plain, almost like home cooking, the flavors were familiar and warm. Chez Panisse has a very Northern California approach to aesthetics. It is very Old Money, exacting a measured rejection of fireworks and flash. There’s no edge here, and no desire to find it. Chez Panisse places its trust in those things that are classic, timeless, eternal. Never be ashamed of cashmere and pearls.

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